This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Agony Booth review: Hollow Man (2000)

My latest Agony Booth work looks at a film that's at the bottom of the list you'll find The Invisible Man (1933) at the top of.

I previously expressed my disappointment with Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. But I also noted how it’s understandable why that movie has the following that it does. The same cannot be said for Verhoeven’s follow-up to Starship Troopers, Hollow Man.

Its plot, concerning a scientist taking a serum he’s invented that renders him invisible and eventually goes crazy because of it, made comparisons to H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel The Invisible Man inevitable. That book was made into an equally classic film in 1933 starring Claude Rains, and the movie was an intense thriller, with Rains proving a scary yet somewhat pitiable presence throughout using mostly his voice. Add to that some subtle humor, and it doesn’t take long to see why that movie, along with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, remains one of director James Whale’s masterpieces.

Now, remove all traces of thoughtfulness from the story and add a heavy layer of Verhoeven-esque sleaze, and you come up with Hollow Man.

Our film begins with a mouse being dropped into a maze. The creature runs around a bit before being picked up by an invisible hand. We then see the mouse being ripped to shreds as the bloody outline of teeth is seen.

Next, we see Dr. Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon) at home on his computer, attempting to work on computations for what we’ll soon see is a serum to reverse the effects of another serum he’s already invented, which has been able to cause invisibility in animals. He’s both frustrated at how his work isn’t progressing and how his attractive neighbor (Rhona Mitra) closes her curtains shortly after arriving home (and shortly before undressing).

But that frustration is short-lived when Sebastian goes back to his computer and manages to make whatever he’s working on come up right. He calls himself a genius before phoning his colleague and former flame Linda McKay (Elisabeth Shue). After taking note via their webcam conversation that she’s now sleeping with someone else, Sebastian informs her of his progress, and asks her to alert their colleague Matt Kensington (Josh Brolin) to meet them at their lab. As it turns out, it doesn’t take long for Linda to fill Matt in, since he’s the guy she’s now sleeping with.

In the lab, we see many animals in cages, some of which are invisible. Matt tries to calm an invisible gorilla into going with him to the lab, but gets bitten on the hand for his trouble. Meanwhile, Sebastian gets chewed out by the vet assigned to their project, Sarah Kennedy (Kim Dickens). Their fellow doctor Frank Chase (Joey Slotnick) jokingly announces on the intercom that he’s God, and they’ll all be punished for “disturbing the natural order of things” like this. Sebastian shows how egotistical he is when he tells Frank, “You’re not God. I am!”

With their other colleagues Carter Abbey (Greg Grunberg) and Janice Walton (Mary Randle), they put the gorilla under and inject the new serum into her. After some moments requiring the use of a defibrillator, the gorilla becomes visible again, starting with the internal organs, then the skeleton, and slowly moving out layer by layer until the entire gorilla becomes visible.

The group then goes out to dinner to celebrate their achievement, although Sebastian is somewhat down, since this means their work is officially at an end now. And his failed attempt to get things going again with Linda is not helping him much.

The next day, we see Sebastian at the Pentagon explaining to his boss Dr. Howard Kramer (William Devane) and various generals how he and the others have been working on making someone invisible and then visible again for four years now. The hard part, he says, has been to bring the subjects back to being visible again. When Kramer asks if the team has achieved the next step, Sebastian, to Linda and Matt’s dismay, says they haven’t, but they’re close to doing so.

After Dr. Kramer threatens to replace Sebastian if he doesn’t deliver results soon, Linda and Matt confront Sebastian about hiding the truth. Sebastian counters that the Pentagon is going to take away the project once they get knowledge of what they’ve accomplished. To that end, he proposes that they go to the next step themselves, which is to make a human invisible.

Back at the lab, Sebastian lies to his remaining colleagues that the Pentagon approved this next phase, and that they allowed him to be the first test subject. Linda and Matt know the truth, but they keep it to themselves. Though, they do voice their concerns later that night, while making out with each other.

The next morning, Sebastian prepares for the procedure, and attempts to lighten the unease by telling a dirty joke involving Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Invisible Man that we all heard in junior high.

Sebastian strips down, and personally injects the serum into himself. Cool special effects take center stage as Sebastian slowly dissolves layer by layer and slips into unconsciousness. Sebastian awakens later, completely invisible.

Over the next couple of days, he amuses and even startles his colleagues. At one point, he peeps on Janice while she’s using the bathroom, and later gropes Sarah when she dozes off.

After three days, the team attempts to bring Sebastian back with their restoring serum. However, it fails, and he’s stuck being invisible. Linda and Matt try to find ways to bring him back. In the meantime, a latex mask is created for Sebastian, giving him the “Hollow Man” look of the title.

Soon, Sebastian has been invisible for 10 days and is becoming more and more agitated. He angrily tells Carter that he’s going crazy and has to get out of the lab and leaves, despite Carter’s protests.

As Carter informs Linda and Matt of this, Sebastian drives home and chills out in his apartment for a while. And that’s when he sees his hot neighbor return again. He briefly, as in for a second, puts away any thoughts of spying on her, before finally deciding to strip down and pay her a visit. But then it seems he’s not content with just looking, and decides to brutally rape her.

Linda arrives at Sebastian’s place, but only sees his mask. She meets up with the others at the lab to try to track him down, although Carter briefly protests. But their plans stop there as Sebastian appears, saying he just needed time away from the lab. Linda then threatens him, saying if he does this again, she’s going to reveal what he’s done to Dr. Kramer, her own career be damned. Sebastian angrily darts off to his room. Sarah figures out that the generals at the Pentagon have no idea what they’re up to, and they’ve been lying to them all along, but Linda begs her to keep her mouth shut.

Even though Sebastian is clearly disturbed and capable of almost anything, no one is doing much to keep track of him or keep him locked down, because he’s able to leave again later by rigging the thermal video camera over his bed to make Frank think he’s still in the lab.

Sebastian goes to Linda’s place, where he gets pissed off at seeing her make out with Matt. This prompts him to smash the window of their bedroom before darting off. Linda calls Frank, but he tells them that Sebastian has been in the lab all night, because he can see him on the video feed.

Sebastian is next seen angrily pacing in the lab, thinking about Linda and Matt. A nearby invisible dog is barking in its cage, which is also pissing him off. This leads to thermal footage of Sebastian picking the poor thing up and smashing it against the cage wall, as if we needed more gratuitous violence to prove that Sebastian is now a bad guy.

I don’t know how much time passes between this and the next scene, because we next see Linda in the lab, where she figures out that Sebastian has rigged the thermal camera, and is apparently gone again. Linda then tells the team that she and Matt are going to alert Dr. Kramer and the other big shots, with, once again, Carter protesting. When Sarah reminds him that Sebastian killed a dog, Carter retorts, “Oh, you were here to see that?” (Well, the only other thing that could have done it is your lousy acting, pal, and since you weren’t around at the time, I’d say that narrows it down.)

Unbeknownst to the group, however, Sebastian is eavesdropping on them, and he follows Linda and Matt to Dr. Kramer’s house. Kramer tells the couple that they’re fired, and that he and the generals will handle Sebastian. After Linda and Matt leave, Kramer attempts to call the Pentagon, but Sebastian cuts all the phone lines before tossing Kramer into his pool, and holding him down and drowning him.

The next day, everyone is at the lab, with Sebastian calmly saying, “It’s going to be a busy day.” Linda and Matt soon learn that Kramer is dead, and then Sebastian cuts the phone lines at the lab, preventing Linda from calling anyone else. They join the other (visible) members of the group in the main lab, where Frank discovers that everyone’s access to the elevator (the only way to leave the lab, of course) has been cut off except Sebastian’s. They go to his room to confront him, but Janice lags behind the rest of the group, and Sebastian springs out and strangles her.

Of course, the others don’t hear her screams as they reach Sebastian’s room and find his discarded mask. Linda then gets on the PA system to tell Sebastian to stop. Sebastian replies, also via the PA, that he now loves the freedom he gets from being invisible, and doesn’t want to let it go, and that he killed Kramer before he could alert anyone.

The gang then realizes that Janice isn’t around and goes back to the lab to look for her, only to find her dead body in a closet. This prompts Sarah to give Linda a hard slap across the chops for allowing things to go on for this long. Once again, Carter (albeit indirectly now) jumps to Sebastian’s defense by saying that laying blame isn’t important, just rectifying the situation.

But Linda announces that they aren’t going to give up without a fight, and soon they bring out the tranquilizer guns, as well as thermal goggles. With Linda tracking him via a motion detection system, Matt and Carter set out to find Sebastian. After a false alarm involving a heating vent, Sebastian is seen on top of a steampipe, where he grabs Carter, throwing him down onto a steel bar, which tears the hell out of his neck. Matt then tries to shoot Sebastian with a tranquilizer, for some reason discarding his goggles in the process, but Sebastian escapes.

Sarah and Frank tend to Carter, who’s rapidly losing blood. Sarah tells Frank to keep pressure on his neck wound while she gets blood (I thought she was a vet?). She goes to a freezer where bags of human blood are conveniently stored, but then sees a door close. This prompts her to tear open most of the bags she’s carrying, throwing blood everywhere, and with tranquilizer gun in hand, she dares Sebastian to take one step. When nothing happens, she hears him comment on the mess she made before he slaps her. Sarah tears another bag, tossing blood on him. A brief struggle breaks out, ending with Sebastian shooting Sarah with the tranquilizer, and then breaking her neck, and then groping her one last time for good measure.

In the meantime, Frank is hovering over Carter, telling him not to die. Of course, it may have helped if Frank was still keeping pressure on Carter’s wound like Sarah told him to do. Linda and Matt arrive and tell Frank that it’s no use, and Carter is dead, and then they go off to find Sarah.

Given the tone the film has taken by this point, I’m sure this was completely unintentional, but I can’t help but note a certain irony that the one person who was willing to give Sebastian the benefit of the doubt the entire time ends up suffering such a gruesome, deliberate death at his hands.

In the lab, they find blood all over the floor and the open freezer door. As Frank keeps a lookout for Sebastian using a fire extinguisher, Linda and Matt find Sarah’s body in the freezer. When Frank turns to look, Sebastian sneaks up behind him and impales him with a crowbar. He then embeds the bar into Matt’s side before locking him and Linda in the freezer.

Sebastian then dresses himself while Linda bandages Matt’s wound with duct tape (sure, that stuff is kept in a freezer, and can be used as a bandage). After wallowing in self-pity for a minute, Linda manages to come up with an escape plan: She uses their defibrillator, which I guess is also kept in the freezer, as a magnet to pull the lock open and get them out of the freezer.

At the same time, Sebastian prepares to destroy the lab with a timer-activated device full of nitroglycerin. Just as he reaches the elevator, however, he’s stopped by Linda, who blasts the hell out of him with a flamethrower she pulled out of her ass.

This burns Sebastian’s clothes off, but doesn’t keep him from darting away. Linda then uses her flamethrower on the sprinklers, but doesn’t see him until he attacks her from behind. Fortunately, Matt shows up just in time to save her by smacking Sebastian with another crowbar. In true slasher film form, Matt tosses his weapon aside, leaving Sebastian to pick it up, but he misses his targets and the bar ends up in a light socket, electrocuting him and causing him to materialize, but only up to the muscle layer.

Assuming Sebastian has been killed, Linda and Matt head to the lab, where they find Sebastian’s bomb about to go off. Matt says they can’t stop the thing (why they can’t, I’m not sure) so they head off for the elevator. They still don’t have access to it, so they get up on the roof of the elevator and climb up the ladder in the elevator shaft.

The bomb then goes off, causing flames to travel through the lab until it reaches the elevator, which causes the elevator to rocket past them. They dodge it, although it tears off a bit of Linda’s arm. The elevator then comes back down, but gets wedged in the wall just before crushing them. Our heroes climb around it, only for the partially visible Sebastian to suddenly reappear and grab Linda’s leg.

He forces one last kiss on her, “for old time’s sake.” She then grabs an elevator cable and tells him to go to hell, sending him and the elevator plunging into the raging inferno below as she hangs on (with her wounded arm, I might add).

The film ends with Linda and Matt, I guess, making it to the top of the elevator shaft, and they’re soon outside as convenient ambulances arrive to help them.

This is basically The Invisible Man redone as a slasher film, containing all the stupidity that this genre (unfairly or not) is associated with. In respect to the acting, Kevin Bacon has always been an underrated actor, and to his credit, he seems like he has fun with this role. What’s disheartening, though, is that we know that he, Shue, and Brolin have all proven elsewhere that they’re capable of better work.

In his review of this film, the late Roger Ebert claimed that the setup of the movie is somewhat reminiscent of The Fly, in that it involves a scientist who becomes trapped by using his invention on himself. But Ebert added that what made Cronenberg’s film special was the curiosity that story generated. Hollow Man has no such curiosity in its narrative, with scientists who could have only have secured jobs in this profession if they had emerged from the womb with diplomas clutched in their tiny hands. Once Sebastian becomes invisible, the movie resorts to pathetic clich├ęs like having the monster get up over and over again like he’s superhuman, and having the people we’re supposed to root for doing stupid things in order to increase the body count.

Amazingly, this film got a direct-to-video sequel in 2006, which starred Christian Slater in the lead role. Not that it mattered much, since Slater’s tired Jack Nicholson-lite shtick and his run-ins with the law had kicked him off Hollywood’s radar by this point, and was a big reason no one gave that film the time of day.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Sir Christopher Lee 1922-2015

Yesterday morning, my brother-in-law texted me the sad news that Sir Christopher Lee died. As readers to this site know, I've reviewed a number of films that were graced by his presence. To that end, I wrote an article honoring this man. Farewell, sir! You shall be missed, and please tell Vincent and Peter we say hi!

Legendary actor Sir Christopher Lee passed away Sunday at age 93. News of his passing was announced Thursday by the Guardian.

The actor passed away from heart failure at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, where he was being treated for respiratory problems.
Lee began his career in the late 1940s following service in the British military during World War II. His first notable role was as the Frankenstein Monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) the first Frankenstein movie made in color. The success of that film led its studio, Hammer, to produce the first color Dracula movie the following year, Horror of Dracula. As the title character in that movie, Lee would find his signature character. He would go on to reprise the role in seven more films.

His success as the Count would lead to other horror movie roles for the actor, including The Mummy (1959) and To the Devil…A Daughter (1976). Many of these films were produced by Hammer and co-starred Peter Cushing, whom Lee would remain life-long friends with until Cushing’s passing in 1994.

However, Lee made it a point throughout his career to show the world that he could do more than monsters. To that end, he was in such diverse films as The Devil Rides Out (1968), The Bloody Judge (1970), The Three Musketeers (1973), The Wicker Man (1973) and the title character in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). Lee, a cousin of James Bond creator Ian Fleming, would even host a 1977 episode of Saturday Night Live.

As his career went on, Lee found himself in great demand, working with such directors as Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, Tim Burton, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese.

Lee’s acting career would eventually land him in the Guinness World Records as the actor who had taken part in more movie sword fights than any other (17). These include the lightsaber fights Lee took part in as Sith Lord Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005).

But it was director Peter Jackson who would ensure that Lee was introduced to a new generation of fans when he cast the actor as the wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lee’s talents were not restricted to acting. He would lend his distinctive voice to several albums, such as the 2010 heavy-metal collections Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. In 2013, Lee released the single Jingle Hell, which entered the Billboard Hot 100 at number 22, making Lee the oldest living artist to enter the charts.

Lee was knighted for his illustrious career in 2009.

He is survived by his wife of over 50 years, former Danish model Birgit Kroencke and their daughter Christina.

“He was the last of his kind - a true legend - who I’m fortunate to have called a friend. He will continue to inspire me and I’m sure countless others for generations to come,” praised Burton, who directed Lee in five movies.

Lee’s final film is the soon-to-be-released Angels of Notting Hill, where he will portray an immortal looking over the universe.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Agony Booth review: 5 reasons the TNG movies weren't that good

I've stated more than once that the four movies Star Trek: The Next Generation spawned were disappointing. My latest article for the Agony Booth goes into more detail as to why that is.
I think it’s safe to say that Star Trek fandom was at its height in 1994. The original series movies had ended on a great note with 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, The Next Generation had ended its seven-year run on a high with its final episode “All Good Things...” (which won Trek the last of its four Hugo Awards), Deep Space Nine concluded its successful second season, and the first TNG movie was in the wings.

That movie, Star Trek: Generations, also had the added bonus of teaming Captains Kirk and Picard together on the big screen in the first of what everyone thought would be a successful run of films for TNG.

After all, with the exception of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, all of the movies featuring the original series cast were first-rate (I admit, I found The Motion Picture enjoyable, if slow). So everyone was counting on TNG to reproduce that same kind of magic on the big screen.

There were a total of four Trek movies with the TNG gang. Alas, none of them managed to truly capture the spirit or success of TNG the TV series. Here are five reasons as to why these movies just don’t hold up as well as the TOS films.

1. The need to “pass the baton”

Let’s start with the first movie: Generations. This was a gimmick by Paramount to “pass the baton” from TOS to TNG on the big screen. As far as fans were concerned, the baton was already passed with the lovely final shot of the Enterprise-A sailing off into the stars at the end of Undiscovered Country. Still, the chance to see Kirk and Picard share the screen could have been something special.

Alas, the final product proved anything but. There was some good stuff in Generations, such as Picard’s torment over the deaths of his family members, the Duras sisters returning, and Data getting used to his new emotions; And while everyone knew Kirk was going to die even before the film was released, the destruction of the beloved Enterprise-D was quite shocking, even if it lacked the drama of the destruction of the original ship in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

But the movie’s main selling point, Picard teaming up with Kirk, is handled in such a sloppy way that it basically started the whole TNG movie franchise off on a sour note. In the end, it would seem Kirk’s death ended up hurting TNG more than it did the character of Kirk himself.

2. No character development

One of my colleagues on this site wrote an article which noted that TNG made an effort to give the spotlight to all its regular characters, not simply Picard and Data. At the time of the release of Generations, there was a monthly magazine called Star Trek Communicator, and around that time, I read a letter from a reader in one issue that sadly turned out to be prophetic.

The author expressed concern that the TNG movies would basically leave no room for the character moments that were TNG’s hallmark, such as Picard and Crusher having tea together, or Data and LaForge being BFFs. TNG’s final season also gave us the beginnings of a Picard/Crusher romance, as well as a Worf/Troi/Riker triangle (I know some people disliked the latter, but it’s no worse than the Worf/Dax romance on DS9). However, Generations, like the following three TNG movies, is mainly focused on Picard and Data, pushing the other characters aside. This brings me to my next point.

3. The reinvention of Jean-Luc Picard

One of the biggest reasons that the TNG films don’t live up to the series is that they’re more interested in being action flicks, TNG’s legacy (and in some cases, common sense) be damned. In all four of these movies, there seems to be a tendency to recreate Picard as a swashbuckling hero, engaging in fisticuffs with each of the movies’ villains.

I can accept this in the second TNG film, Star Trek: First Contact, given the character’s history with the Borg, but having him do so in the other three movies in such a contrived manner had me questioning more than once if this was the same man we enjoyed watching on TV for seven seasons.

At the same time, there was an attempt to make Picard more of a romantic figure by giving him pseudo-love interests in both First Contact and the third film, Insurrection. The former involves the character of Lily (Alfre Woodard), Zefram Cochrane’s assistant who’s brought aboard the Enterprise and fights the Borg alongside our heroes. This character is unnecessary, because she does what Crusher had often done on the show: talk sense into Picard.

In Insurrection, we see Picard and his crew inexplicably side with a race of people who, when you really look at the story, are just a bunch of selfish jerks. One of these people, Anij, played by Donna Murphy, proves to be another replacement for Beverly, in that she gets bonding scenes with Jean-Luc. Patrick Stewart got an associate producer credit for Insurrection, so many blame him for trying to make Picard into an action/romance star in this movie, but if the previous two films are any indication, Paramount would have encouraged this direction anyway.

The reason Picard’s heroics worked in episodes like “Starship Mine” and “Gambit” is that, unlike the films, those circumstances didn’t compromise what we knew and loved about the character.

4. All self-contained stories

Although most dislike the slow pace of the movie, The Motion Picture nonetheless did its job of introducing Kirk and his crew on the big screen in a grandiose way. However, it was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that ensured their big screen exploits would be as beloved as their small screen ones. A major reason for this was producer Harve Bennett taking a good look at the series before production began, and making two key decisions: he wanted to recapture the character moments between the crew, and bring back a strong antagonist for them.

This decision basically led to how Star Treks III, IV, and VI would play out (it’s an interesting coincidence that the much-hated Final Frontier is the only film of the bunch to not follow upon Wrath of Khan’s storyline). As a result, the way the movies tied in together is part of why they nicely complemented the show itself. In contrast, all four TNG films were simply self-contained adventures with little ongoing significance, much like Voyager and Enterprise would later turn out to be.

Even First Contact suffered from this, from the beginning of the movie when it was revealed that a single Borg ship was launching an attack on the Federation, which was a rehash of the same battle in TNG’s classic “The Best of Both Worlds” two-parter. You’d think that suspense would have increased tenfold if the Borg had sent more than just one vessel this time around. I know some will argue that the attack in the movie was just a ruse to get the Borg’s time travel scheme underway, but then, why didn’t the Borg just use their time travel further away from Earth, so no Federation ships could follow them?

Granted, we saw the Borg in the series, but as DS9 was on the air at the time the first three TNG movies were in theaters, I think the Borg should have been tied in with the Dominion, much the same way that the TOS movies eventually tied in Khan’s storyline with the Klingons.

5. Constantly trying to compete with Khan

Another thing all four TNG movies have in common is their attempt to have the crew battle a specific, evil villain. This was understandable in First Contact, but even that ended up hurting the movie in the end. As unnecessary as Lily is, even more so is the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), a character who appears to be strong proof that First Contact is as much a movie by committee as the other TNG films. What made the Borg unique is that they were all one hive mind, and hence, not like other villains. Giving them a single leader made them simply just another generic foe.

Insurrection didn’t fare any better in this department, as the person we were supposed to hate (played by F. Murray Abraham) turned out to be hammier than a can of Spam (watch how he screams the patented Star Wars “NOOOOOOO!” and you’ll see what I mean).

Rolling Stone had an article discussing the fourth TNG movie Nemesis several months before it premiered. In that article, they mentioned that Nemesis would have a villain to rival Khan. Right at that moment, my mind was screaming for this not to be. Putting aside the fact that TNG already had, for all intents and purposes, its counterpart of Khan with the Borg, this article was basically saying that the film wanted to go the action route again, just like its three predecessors.

That villain turned out be the Reman leader Shinzon (played by Tom Hardy), who via plot contrivance had been surgically altered to resemble a younger Picard. Other nonsense this film gives us is yet another android who resembles Data, which is as bad an idea as giving Spock a brother in Star Trek V. There’s even a big climatic battle in the finale of the movie meant to generate the same emotion as the one in Star Trek VI. Sadly, this film reinforced the fact that “All Good Things...” would have been a better sendoff for the TNG gang.

To summarize, the four TNG movies had some good ideas, but those were sadly overshadowed by the studio’s desire to turn TNG into something it wasn’t, hence invalidating the series the same way Alien 3 invalidated its predecessors. Or to look at it another way, if TNG ended with “All Good Things...”, those stupid “Troi can’t drive” jokes wouldn’t exist.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Interview with Haley Scarnato

I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Haley Scarnato, a singer who is known for appearing on the sixth season of American Idol.

1. Haley, when did you first realize that singing was your passion?
-I started at a very young age. I took voice lessons at 12 and started developing more of a style & joined a theater group called Show Stoppers. That’s when I discovered my love for singing.

2. Who are your inspirations, music-wise?
-Celine Dion. In country, Garth Brooks, Faith Hill and I love how Shania Twain transformed country music into something more pop and edgy.

3. Is there a specific type of music you like to sing?
-I sing country, that’s what I’ve been doing.

4. You’ve obviously performed before crowds numerous times. Was it daunting at first?
-It was nerve-wracking. Singing in groups was one things, but alone, I was nervous. I had a nice but strict teacher. She encouraged me saying ‘go out & you’ll be fine.’

5. Did you ever think you’d appear on American Idol?
-Not really (laughs). You don’t really think you’ll be on it but the show came to my home town and my friends encouraged me to audition, so I did.

6. Have you kept in touch with any of the American Idol people?
-Yes, I’m good friends with Faith Lewis and Laksiha Jones, who I do a show with. We just kept in touch here and there.

7. Since then, you’ve written your own music. Of your own music, do you have a favorite?
-One song, “Girls Night Out,”that’s a fun, edgy song that fun to do live.

8. You are currently touring with Symphony Idol. What is that like?
-It’s pretty neat. We do a bunch of different variety song. We do some Broadway stuff, harmonies and duets. You’ve got all these amazing musicians. We are going out on the road to Louisana in two weeks for another show.

9. Are there any events or places you’d like to sing for?
-I don’t know. I guess it depends on the environment. You have a good event with musicians and sounds. Bad ones, not so much (laughs).

10. Can you tell us about what songs you have coming up?
-I have one song, a duet, which I recorded with my friend Roger Ballard in Nashville. It was written about a woman’s point of view and a man’s point of view. It’s kind of neat to see that, so that you can’t blame the man. It should iTunes and my website by the summer.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Agony Booth review: Planet Terror (2007)

This Agony Booth review focuses on the first half of Grindhouse (2007).

A while back, one of my colleagues on this site wrote a review of Death Proof, the second half of Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s double-feature homage to low-budget horror and action flicks of the 1970s. I’m now going to look at Grindhouse’s first half, the enjoyable (if overblown) zombie flick Planet Terror, which was written and directed by Rodriguez.

We begin at a go-go club in Texas one night. Already, Rodriguez is hammering in the homage to drive-in flicks of the ‘70s, because he makes damn sure that the film has that grainy look, with visible scratches to complete the effect. And in the sleazy spirit of its predecessors, the go-go club owner encourages his dancers to make out on stage. One of the dancers, Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), decides to follow through on her oft-repeated threat to quit, just like many heroines of horror flicks past.

As Cherry walks off into the dead of night, a convoy of trucks almost runs her over, knocking her down and causing her to cut her leg on a garbage can. We then follow this convoy to a nearby military base. An engineer named Abby (Naveen Andrews) gets out and banters with a nameless scientist, then shows off a container that turns out to be filled with amputated testicles. And just for the sake of gratuitous violence for shock value, Abby has his men use a knife to relieve the nameless schmuck of his own balls.

The sinister Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis) then appears and asks Abby, “Where’s the shit?” No, he’s not asking about all that Hudson Hawk merchandise nobody wanted. Rather, he’s talking about a special chemical that Abby has engineered. Muldoon pins him down and repeats his question as boils appear on his face, which we later learn means that he’s becoming a zombie. Abby responds by shooting at a tank full of the chemical, releasing it into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, a car drives up to a restaurant called the Bone Shack. Its driver Tammy (played by Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson) tells the Bone Shack’s owner J.T. Hague (Jeff Fahey) that her car is overheating. As they talk, Cherry limps past her toward the restaurant. When Tammy asks if Cherry’s fine, she replies, “I’m just cherry.” (I guess Michael Caine would have sued her if she said she was just peachy.)

Elsewhere, we meet Dr. Dakota Block (Marley Shelton) and her husband, fellow doctor Bill (Josh Brolin) as they get ready to work the night shift at the hospital. Bill sits down to eat with their son Tony (Rebel Rodriguez), who’s got a box of a Lucky Charms-esque cereal called Great White Bites. I wonder if its slogan is “Just when you thought it was safe to reach inside for the prize”?

While this is going on, Dakota secretly texts her lover, to say that Bill has discovered their illicit affair and is on to them.

Back at the Bone Shack, Cherry meets up with her former flame El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez). She tells him that she’s no longer a go-go dancer, and plans to be a standup comedian. El Wray tells her that she isn’t funny, to which Cherry replies that people tell her she’s hilarious. Which I guess means that El Wray didn’t see Scream. They engage in typical love/hate banter before El Wray agrees to give Cherry a ride to wherever she wants to go.

Meanwhile, Dakota and Bill arrive at the hospital, and she tells him goodbye. He replies, “Don’t you mean, ‘See you later’?” To which she responds, “Of course.” These two put the Kardashians’ dysfunction to shame.

Bill then examines a guy named Joe (Nicky Katt) who has a wound on his arm. Bill and his disinterested partner look at the wound, and then also notice Joe’s puss-filled tongue. They inform Joe that his arm needs to be amputated before the infection spreads to his chest. Bill sternly calls in Dakota, who arrives with a pocketful of multicolored syringes that she calls her “friends”.

She explains that her first “friend”, the yellow one, takes the sting away. The second, the blue, is something he’ll barely feel. When she injects Joe with the third, a red-capped syringe, Dakota quietly tells Joe as he loses consciousness, “You’ll never see me again.” Dr. Kevorkian has nothing on this girl.

Next, we see Tammy having car trouble again, and as fate would have it, she’s near that military base. After failing to hitch a ride, she’s grabbed by zombies, who proceed to make her their dinner. El Wray and Cherry drive past the carnage, with El Wray simply blowing this zombie attack off as roadkill being dragged away, even though it was quite obviously a person.

Suddenly, human forms appear out of the darkness, and El Wray violently swerves his truck in order to avoid hitting them. The truck rolls over and gets attacked by zombies, who rip off Cherry’s leg before being chased away by El Wray’s gunfire.

El Wray takes Cherry to the hospital and explains to Dr. Bill how the zombies took her leg. He says that shooting them didn’t slow them down, adding, “I never miss!” Get used to that line, by the way, because El Wray keeps repeating it, hoping it’ll become his own personal “Go ahead, make my day”.

Then we meet the sheriff (Michael Biehn). He and his deputy (Tom Savini) arrive at the hospital, and begin to give El Wray crap because of their vague past dealings. El Wray notices that more people in the hospital are displaying those same zombie boils on their faces, and more wounded people start pouring in. But this doesn’t stop the sheriff from handcuffing El Wray for unclear reasons, and hauling him off to the station.

Down at the station, we meet another officer named Earl McGraw, a shared Rodriguez/Tarantino character previously seen in From Dusk till Dawn, Kill Bill Vol. 1, and of course Death Proof, played once again by Michael Parks. A phone call then reveals that the sheriff happens to be the brother of J.T., proprietor of the Bone Shack. Over at the Shack, J.T. wonders why there are so many people outside his restaurant door, not realizing that they’re zombies hoping to make him their next blue plate special.

Meanwhile, Cherry wakes up in her hospital room, and is shocked that one of her legs is now gone.

As it turns out, one of the wounded in the hospital is Tammy, whose brain has been ripped out of her head. In a lame moment, an orderly describes her as a “no-brainer”. Bill makes a point of showing Dakota the body, which horrifies her.

Bill traps Dakota in a back room, and uses her own syringes on her. As she starts to go numb, Bill grabs her cell phone, compares it to Tammy’s cell phone, and confirms that Tammy is the person she was having an affair with. Just as he’s about to do her in with the red syringe, the orderly barges in to report that all the bodies have disappeared.

At the police station, Deputy Savini runs in, pissed off because one of the zombies chomped off his ring finger. According to him, the zombie is still sitting in his patrol car. This prompts the sheriff to send another nameless deputy out to check, but there’s nobody in the car.

Zombies then appear and make short work of the nameless deputy as quickly as if he were wearing a red shirt. Savini and the sheriff shoot other random undead down as more police arrive. El Wray helps out, and tells the sheriff that he’s going back to the hospital to get Cherry. A moment later, the sheriff’s car randomly blows up, so he decides to join El Wray in his big truck.

Despite the fact that there are now zombies roaming around the hospital, Bill calmly walks back to where he left Dakota. Along the way he encounters Joe, now a one-armed zombie who proceeds to wipe puss and crap all over his face.

To demonstrate how far the zombie virus has spread, we visit Earl McGraw in his home as he feeds his elderly wife some soup. After the sheriff calls him to ask him to bring ammo to the hospital, Earl realizes that his wife now has a taste for something a little different than soup, and she lunges at her husband, who’s presumably forced to take her out.

The next scene is where the film really starts becoming too bonkers for its own good. Dakota escapes from the hospital by crashing through a window and landing two stories down. Amazingly, she walks away without so much as a scratch on her (at least when the heroine of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did the same thing, she was covered with cuts and bruises). She then attempts to get into her car with her still numb and useless hands, breaking her wrist in the process. Then sloppy editing shows her just getting into the car, as an explosion from who-knows-where is heard.

Dakota drives off as El Wray and the sheriff arrive at the hospital. Wray does some kung fu on the zombies, while the hospital goes up in flames. He meets up with Cherry, who’s mourning her lost leg. She says, “I’m going to be a standup comedian? Who’s going to laugh now?” Nobody watching this movie, that’s for sure.

El Wray has an equally lame retort: “Would you quit crying over fucking spilt milk?” Somehow, that lacks the punch Indiana Jones brought to the line “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.” In Evil Dead style, El Wray sticks a table leg on her, somehow allowing her to walk. They head back to the truck, and as El Wray fights off zombies, Cherry limps around and delivers the understatement of the film with, “This is ridiculous!”

We then see why Dakota makes for great Mother of the Year material, when we meet her babysitters and see that she’s entrusted her son’s care to bitchy, sex-crazed twins (Electra and Elise Avellan). Dakota arrives and kicks them out after they complain that Tammy didn’t show up when she was supposed to.

Dakota plans to drive her son to safety, but first we get to watch as the kid packs up his turtle, scorpion, and tarantula. As they drive away, the car is suddenly attacked. Except it’s not zombies, but rather those two pissed-off twins. Eventually, Dakota gets away.

Back at the Bone Shack, the sheriff deputizes the gathering crowd, except for El Wray. Sure, that’s logical.

Meanwhile, Dakota takes her son to her estranged father’s home, and it turns out her father is Earl. But before Dakota goes to meet him, she gives her son a gun for protection, and tells him to shoot anyone he sees. The kid asks, “What if it’s Dad?” To which Dakota replies, “Especially if it’s your dad.”

Unfortunately, just as Dakota gets out, the kid ends up shooting himself in the head. His zombie dad Bill then shows up, with more zombies in tow. Luckily, Earl lets her inside just in time.

Back at the Bone Shack, El Wray and Cherry do the same thing every couple does when the world is going to hell: have sex. This ends with more grainy-looking film and, mercifully, a “Missing Reel” card.

When we return from this interlude, the Bone Shack is up in flames, zombies are approaching, and the sheriff has been shot by one of his own incompetent underlings. Dakota and Earl also arrive together with those crazy twins (what’s a smashed car between friends, right?).

As the sheriff is dying, he says that they should give all their guns to El Wray. Well, I feel better already. The zombies burst in and rip Savini to bits. Our heroes then blast their way through more zombies before they pack up the survivors and head out.

Our intrepid bunch gets a few miles away, but are stopped at a bridge by more zombies. The sheriff says that they don’t have enough ammo to deal with all of them. Fortunately, they get rescued by Lt. Muldoon and his men, who take them into custody.

Next thing we know, our heroes are in a prison cell with Abby, who explains that the substance in the atmosphere is part of something called “Project Terror”. He also explains that constant inhalation of the gas delays mutation.

Cherry and Dakota are taken into an elevator by two soldiers. As the elevator heads down, we see one of the soldiers is played by Quentin Tarantino. He taunts Cherry, and this conversation proves once again that, as an actor, Tarantino’s an awesome director. And oh yeah, boils are developing on his face, too.

Upstairs, El Wray shoots the guards watching over his cell. He and Abby then track down Muldoon. During this conversation, Muldoon has a bizarre monologue that includes him explaining that he secretly killed Osama bin Laden, and his story is eerily similar to the actual assassination that didn’t happen until four years later.

Bad editing and grainy film take over the narrative again, as Muldoon transforms into the most ridiculous looking zombie ever. Finally, El Wray shoots him.

Meanwhile, Cherry and Dakota engage in girl talk. Tarantino returns to give Cherry more shit, so she snaps off a piece of her wooden leg and jams it into his eye. Being a zombie, however, he shrugs this off and takes off his pants so he can presumably sex her up, but it turns out his junk has been affected by the virus and is melting off. Dear God. Dakota then regains the use of her hands, and pulls out syringes she had stashed away and uses them to incapacitate Tarantino. So I guess that broken wrist healed itself.

El Wray and Abby arrive, and now El Wray attaches an M4 Carbine assault rifle to Cherry’s leg. And not only is she able to walk around on the rifle, but she’s also somehow able to fire it without pulling a trigger. I guess the thing reads her mind?

The four break out the other survivors. J.T. says that there are helicopters nearby they can use to escape, and he and the sheriff stay behind to heroically sacrifice themselves.

Our band fights their way out of the facility, with Abby getting his head blown off. We then get a moment where Cherry launches herself into the air with an M203 grenade launcher attached to her gun leg, in a gag that’s even dumber than that “nuke the fridge” thing.

Zombie Bill arrives to threaten Dakota one last time, before Earl does the fatherly thing and kills him. But it seems El Wray is mortally wounded. He tells a crying Cherry not to worry though, because she won’t be alone. He then points to her (presumably now pregnant) belly and again says his awful “I never miss” line. Geez, enough already!

The film ends with our survivors setting up shop on a beach in Mexico, for all the good that’ll do them, and sure enough, Cherry is now a mom. A quick post-credits scene shows Dakota’s son alive again, and playing with his turtle, scorpion, and tarantula. Because why not?

Planet Terror is certainly entertaining, with Rodriguez’s love for zombie films shining through in the same way that Sergio Leone’s love for westerns shined through in his movies. The cast is game as well, with Biehn and Fahey being their usual dependable selves, and McGowan and Shelton playing more appealing characters than the ones they respectively played in Scream and Valentine.

The only weak link is Freddy Rodriguez, who tries to make El Wray an Eastwood-esque rogue, but instead comes off as an annoying prick.

The real problem with the movie is that its tongue is a bit too firmly in its cheek. The zombie films of George Romero were flamboyant, to say the least. But those are beloved films (well, the first three, anyway) because there’s just enough seriousness injected into the proceedings to make audiences want to follow things through to the end.

I also disliked the zombie makeup of Planet Terror, which was way too over the top. In fairness, monster makeup can be a tricky thing to pull off, but instead of being scared, my first thought at seeing the zombies was to pity the actors buried under all that silly putty.

I know there will be people who will argue that the film’s flaws are intentional, in that they’re supposed to resemble similar Z-grade films of the ‘70s. But homages can only carry a movie so far before they overwhelm the narrative of the movie itself.

For example, I know that many will point out that those films of the ‘70s also had that grainy look, and that it’s part of their charm. And I would actually be inclined to agree with that sentiment. However, I wonder if it ever crossed Rodriguez’s mind that the grainy film and “missing reel” scenes of such movies were not put in there intentionally.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Heart Like a Wheel (1983)

-Shirley Muldowney when a reporter asks "What's a beautiful girl like you doing on a racetrack like this?".

This uplifting true story depicts how Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia) became the first woman to be successful in the world of drag racing.
Her quest begins in 1956 New York when she convinces her husband Jack (Leo Rossi) to let her drive her sportscar on deserted roads at night, which is something Jack does in his spare time.

By the mid-1960s, Shirley prepares to officially enter the National Hot Rod Association. She goes through difficulty in getting the necessary signatures for her NHRA license in the male-dominated sport. But fortune smiles on Shirley when she encounters racer Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges), who helps her get her license, and, later on, propositions her, despite the fact that they are both married.

Shirley's success on the road, naturally, prompts her compete year round. This desire leads to her divorce from Jack, although their son John (Anthony Edwards) continues to support his mom.

Eventually, Shirley and Connie become lovers and he becomes her fuel chief. But even their relationship becomes strained after he is suspended by the NHRA. Connie later gets reinstated and the film ends with the two competing in a 1980 race, which Shirley wins.

The film has a nice cast, with Bedelia giving a nice performance in the lead. Ironically, the real-life Muldowney, who was a consultant on the film, didn't much care for Bedelia's portrayal of her, citing how, in interviews, the actress stated her dislike for racing.

Regardless, Bedelia was rightfully nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her performance, but, today, she is best known for her roles in Die Hard (1988), Presumed Innocent (1990) and the TV series Parenthood.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Interview with Ariana Richards

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Ariana Richards, who is best known for playing Lex in the classic film Jurassic Park (1993). In recent years, she has also made her a name for herself as an artist. Her work can be viewed on the website Gallery Ariana.

1. Ariana, I’m going start by asking you a question I’m sure you’ve been asked numerous times. What was it like working with Steven Spielberg?

A-Yes, I’ve been asked that before, but I have so many good memories. I still remember when I first met Steven. I was on my way to Disneyland with my mom & sister. We were about to leave the house when my agent called saying Steven would like to meet with me. He was just so friendly and easygoing when I walked into his office. By the end, he was asking, “Are you busy this summer, Ariana?” Of course I said no and he said you got the job. He was great, warm and enthusiastic. When I’d get a scene just right, Steven would leap out of his director’s chair and give me a hug. We’ve stayed in touch and have become friends. I’m happy to see him whenever possible. He sends me a Xmas gift each year.

2. You briefly reprised Lex in the first Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997). What was that like?

A- I got to have a cameo with Joseph (Mazzello, who played Tim). It was really great that they wanted to bring the kids back and be a part of Jurassic. Coming to the set again with Steven, Jeff Goldblum, and Joe, just felt natural. It was kind of like I’d never left.

3. You acted in other films and TV shows both before and after Jurassic Park. Do you have any fond memories of any of those?

A-Oh, yeah. I started acting at 6. I’ve been in over 20 films and have had some wonderful experiences. I’ve filmed in the highlands of Scotland for The Princess Stallion. I’ve worked with Neil Simon on stage in LA for Jake’s Women. Angus, which was a coming of age story, was a memorable one. I’ve gotten opportunities to do some interesting films. There’s also Tremors (laughs), It has a huge cult following. Apparently this year is the movie’s 25th anniversary.

4. Are there any actors, actresses or directors you’d like to work with?

A-There are so many talented people out there in the business. I’d have to take time for a complete answer. I’ve worked with some great directors. Steven Spielberg, obviously. I also liked working with Mark Haber, who directed Princess Stallion, as well as Neil Simon. I worked with actors such as Kathy Bates, Alan Alda and Helen Hunt. It would be great to work with J. J. Abrams. Of course, if I had the chance to work with Steven again, it would be hard to say no (laughs).

5. Is there a specific genre you are a fan of?

A-I like a lot of different genres of films. I’ve done quite a bit of sci-fi, obviously (laughs). But I like dramas, comedies. I’m not so much a fan of horror as the other genres. I also like period pieces because they pose the additional challenge of taking place in a different time.

6. You have also dabbled in music with the album First Love and later recording a cover version of “The Prayer.” What was it like doing something like that?

A-I enjoyed doing my music. I love singing. After Jurassic, I was approached to do a CD in Japan. It was a total blast, the recording and studio experience. I guess I have an appreciation for many forms of art (laughs).

7. In recent years, you’ve made your mark as an accomplished artist. You are also a descendant of Renaissance painter Carlo Crivelli. Would you say that that was what inspired you to become a painter yourself?

A-Definitely! The fact that art was already was in my blood. My maternal grandmother was also a professional artist, an oil painter. She gave me training and lessons when I was 10. All of my formalized education started at age 12. Then I continued on with art training and with a tutor who was a teacher for the Disney artists. After a degree program in Fine Art and Drama with Skidmore College, I did quite a bit of art training with a mentoring program, where I learned many things that I could have never learned in school. It got me inspired and it took off from there. On a movie set, I’d often have my sketchbook, jotting down ideas. After Jurassic, I wanted to boil down my emotional experience filming that movie, and painted “Raptor Vision”, a watercolor self portrait of the jello scene.

8. You’ve done a variety of paintings, including people and landscapes. Do you have a preference as to what you like to paint?

A-I would say, if I had to choose, I really enjoy portraits of people. I enjoy the process of getting to know people & collaborating on a vision with them. It’s kind of like being a director in a way, expressing their essence on canvas. I get to know their personalities. It’s especially nice when they receive their portraits and they tell me their reaction.

9. Do you ever fancy the notion of acting in the future?

A-Absolutely. I’ve always loved acting. If the right role comes along, I would certainly take it. I haven’t really been looking around for acting roles recently, though, because I’ve been focused on my art career. But if something comes my way, I’d be happy to look at it.